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GOP Barely Keeps House Ethics Bill on Track

After struggling to unite party members on a key issue, leaders clear the legislation for passage.

April 28, 2006|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders overcame a rift within party ranks Thursday to clear the way for passage of legislation to tighten ethics and lobbying rules, a key to the GOP effort to repair Congress' image before the November elections.

The bill narrowly cleared a procedural hurdle, but only after Republican leaders scrambled to bring together their rank and file to avoid an embarrassing setback on one of their priorities. It showed just how much the leaders had to work to unite the once lock-step GOP team, and underscored the difficulty that lay ahead in trying to change the way lawmakers and lobbyists go about their jobs.

The vote was 216 to 207, with no Democrats in favor. Twelve Republicans and one independent also voted no. The California delegation split along party lines, with Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson) not voting.

A final vote is expected next week. The House legislation will then have to be reconciled with a Senate bill approved 90 to 8 late last month.

The issue has come to the fore amid public opinion polls showing widespread dissatisfaction with Congress.

"It's our only chance to maintain the majority, it really is," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

Democrats, government watchdog groups and a handful of Republicans have assailed the bill as weak, saying it would do little to change the way business is conducted on Capitol Hill, which has been rocked by a spate of ethics scandals.

The bill would put a moratorium on privately funded congressional travel, deny congressional pensions to lawmakers convicted of abusing the public trust and require a public accounting of projects tucked into spending bills, often at the behest of lobbyists.

Unlike the Senate bill, the House measure would not prohibit lobbyists from buying gifts or meals for lawmakers or extend the period former lawmakers must wait after leaving Capitol Hill before lobbying their onetime colleagues. It would require lobbyists to disclose the meals they buy for lawmakers and staffers, but they would not be forced to disclose their contacts with lawmakers or their role in arranging fundraisers.

"We need bold reform -- and regretfully, this bill does not do it," Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said.

"A ruse -- that's what this is," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) added, signaling that Democrats planned to continue to highlight ethics as a campaign issue this year.

The renewed call for ethics and lobbying reform comes in the wake of guilty pleas to political corruption by former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe) and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, money-laundering charges that forced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) from his leadership post, and an investigation of influence-peddling in Washington. Some Democrats have also come under scrutiny for alleged ethics lapses.

House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-San Dimas), the House GOP's point man on drafting ethics rules, called the bill a "vast improvement over the status quo."

"If everybody is unhappy with a piece of legislation, it's probably a pretty good bill," Dreier said, quoting former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat who served time for mail fraud in the mid-1990s.

Earlier in the day, the legislation appeared in jeopardy because of a bitter dispute within the GOP over proposed rules aimed at reining in projects slipped into spending bills, frequently at lobbyists' requests.

House conservatives upset with the explosion of "pork-barrel" spending succeeded in including language that would require projects, as well as the projects' congressional sponsors, to be identified in spending bills and would give lawmakers a new opportunity to challenge funding requests added to spending bills late in the legislative process.

But the proposed change was resisted by House Appropriations Committee members, who have the power to earmark money for lawmakers' pet projects.

The panel's chairman, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), and many of its members signaled that they would withhold their support unless the rule change applied to all bills. Without that, they said, Congress could encounter the same kind of public outcry it got last year when the $223-million "bridge to nowhere" -- connecting the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with an airport and about 50 inhabitants -- was included in a highway bill.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) picked up the votes of Lewis and others after pledging to ensure that no House-Senate compromise bill would come before the House for final approval unless it included "comprehensive earmark reform" applying to all bills.

"Changing anything here in Washington is almost impossible," Boehner said after the vote.

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